Activists renew goal post-PARS: Close Berks County facility

Activists renew goal post-PARS: Close Berks County facility

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Now that Mayor Jim Kenney decided not to renew Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s access to the city’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, immigration advocates are refocusing their efforts to shut down a detention facility.

Kenney’s July 27 decision to end PARS — a local, real-time database of police arrests that collects personal information such as Social Security numbers, birthdates of birth and countries of origin — came as a shock to activists who have fought against the information-sharing agreement.

“A lot of us are still coming to terms that this is a huge victory. We were speechless because we really didn’t think that it would happen,” said Miguel Andrade, the out communications manager of Juntos, a South Philadelphia-based immigration-advocacy group with several queer staff members.

“Meetings with community members, conversations with Kenney’s office and the support of the occupiers outside of City Hall all really helped to galvanize and push us forward to that win,” Andrade said. “We are the vanguard of immigrant rights.”

Juntos staffers said they are renewing their goal to shut down the Berks County Residential Center, an immigration processing facility created as part of an arrangement between Berks County and ICE. Juntos has been actively fighting to close the Berks County facility since 2015.

Francisco Cortes, a Juntos board member and the interim executive director of Galaei, the queer Latinx social-justice group, praised Juntos’ efforts in pressuring Kenney to end PARS.

“Juntos, along with other community groups, have fought hard to get Kenney to see the damage that PARS and ICE have done to the immigrant community in the city,” he said. “Our work isn’t done yet. We’re still fighting to shut down Berks County’s detention center.”

The facility houses more than 50 undocumented immigrants who have entered the U.S. seeking asylum. The families held in the center “are not charged with criminal violations and are only held in custody to assure their presence throughout the administrative-hearing process,” according to the county’s contract with ICE.

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked the center’s childcare license, but the state allowed it to continue to operate through an ongoing appeals process. That year, a guard was convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who was detained with her 3-year-old son. It is unknown if any separated families are being housed at the facility following the Trump administration’s recent policy of separating and detaining immigrant children and their parents, Andrade said.

“We’re shifting the focus to a statewide level, addressing Gov. Wolf to shut down the Berks County Residential Center,” he added. “If Mayor Kenney was able to make this decision when it came to the PARS contract and ICE in Philadelphia, Gov. Wolf needs to make the right decision when it comes to the Berks detention center.”

Wolf’s office did not respond to PGN’s request for comment about the facility by presstime.

Kenney announced his decision to withdraw his consent for ICE’s access to PARS during a press conference at City Hall, saying that he couldn’t “in good conscience allow the agreement to continue.” Amber Hikes, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, said she supported Kenney’s decision, adding the mayor had a long history of being against the contract but lacked the legal backing to ensure it wouldn’t be renewed.

“The only reason the city wasn’t able to make a decision sooner was because the last thing we wanted to do was a take a leap with the PARS contract and then get flagged down on appeal from the Department of Justice,” Hikes said. “It’s no secret the city has been battling with the DOJ around being a sanctuary city. After going to trial numerous times, we finally won that case and we were able to have a strong legal backing when deciding not to renew the contract.”

Kenney filed a federal “sanctuary-city” lawsuit against the Trump administration in August 2017 over the right to limit police cooperation with ICE. Last month, a federal judge ruled in favor of Philadelphia, saying the city’s position was based on policies “that were reasonable, rational and equitable.” 

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